Ed Koch always had a showman’s gift for entrances and exits. He died today at age 88 only hours before a major documentary on his life, Koch, was scheduled to premiere in theaters. As the charming egomaniac that he was he would no doubt be pleased at the extra tickets that will now be sold because of the attention his death creates.
Koch always knew the value of publicity. The boisterous, in-your-face, bluntly honest persona he exhibited came to define New York City for his three terms as mayor from 1977 to 1989. “I decided early on,” he said, “that you have to get the attention of the public. You’ve got to get them to follow you. And you can only do that by being bigger than life.”
The director of Koch is Neil Barsky, a former reporter who wanted to tell the story of how New York began to bounce back from the crime-ridden days of near-bankruptcy that epitomized it in the 1970s. “It was sort of assumed cities got worse,” he told the Wall Street Journal. “Cities were on this inexorable slide. You wake up today—notwithstanding the social issues—there’s remarkable improvement in the way people live. Not just wealthy people. I wanted to figure out how that happened.”
Ed Koch was a man of the Left, but he always emphasized he was a “liberal with sanity.” He was tough on crime, sometimes parsimonious with taxpayer dollars, and had no patience for left-wing social experiments. Many of his policies helped prepare the city for the tougher medicine that Mayor Rudy Giuliani delivered in the 1990s. He crossed party lines and voted for or endorsed Republicans about two-dozen times during his career, including George W. Bush for president in 2004. “As John Kennedy once said, ‘Sometimes party loyalty demands too much,’” he explained.
Most recently, Koch’s support for Republican Bob Turner in the 2011 special election for the congressional seat vacated by Anthony Weiner helped deliver a body blow to the Obama White House. “I wanted to send them a message their policies were hurting Israel and I think they got the FYI by losing this most Democratic of seats,” he told me on Election Night at Turner headquarters. Later, after a meeting with President Obama in the Oval Office, he proclaimed his renewed support for the incumbent, a move he recently confessed to friends may have been an error.
Although he was known publicly for almost never confessing error, in reality I found Ed Koch to be one of the few politicians I ever met who could listen to an argument and then say, “You may be right. I may be wrong” and mean it. He certainly was an egomaniac, but he was one with both a brain and a heart.